(On TV, July 2018) It’s absolutely normal to see Stagecoach and feel as if we’ve seen all of this before: While there were a lot of westerns in Hollywood history before Stagecoach, this John Ford film may have been one of the first notable examples of using the Western as a vehicle for drama and social commentary, helmed by a big-name director and starring well-known actors. As a result, Stagecoach ended up being the first of many: First true John Wayne starring role. First Western that earned sustained critical attention. First Western still worth viewing today, if only to establish the classical western formula before the deconstructionists took over. It has the problem of its qualities: being a straight-up well-executed western, it’s unbelievably racist toward Native Americans depicted as savage hordes. Its portrayal of gender roles is, well, what it was. The cavalry comes to the rescue unironically. On the other hand, the device of uniting different characters for a journey in a tightly enclosed space is a classic (allowing for dramatic friction and commentary outside the scope of a typical western) that has withstood the test of time rather well. Wayne isn’t too annoying as the designated hero of the film and it’s easy to see how his persona would become immensely popular as wider audiences were exposed to him through this film. Stagecoach is a classic western and as such today exemplifies them at their conventional rather than transcend the genre like so many other later westerns would do. It’s worth a look, if only as a yardstick against which more subversive westerns would be compared to.
(On TV, March 2018) Do American movies ever get as angry as does The Grapes of Wrath? Squarely taking on injustice in Dustbowl-Depression era, the film follows a family forced away from their Oklahoma fame and led to seek work in California fields. It really doesn’t go well for most of the movie, as the “Okies” family encounters death and capitalist exploitation at every turn, only reaching satisfaction of sorts in the hands of a decent government program. While definitely softened from the original Steinbeck novel (including reordering episodes around to provide a good ending), The Grapes of Wrath is still a scathing denunciation of the free market in a time of need. It’s almost continuously infuriating as the protagonist family gets knocked down again—fortunately, the stirring ending manages to make things a bit better, delivering a memorable speech about the resiliency of the people (and the importance of being there to right wrongs) as an epilogue. Visually, the black-and-white quality of the film’s images reinforces the poverty of their surroundings, washing out any colour in a muddle of despair. Still, director John Ford knew what he was doing, and the film is still powerful even today. Consider that The Grapes of Wrath was a major production by a big studio … why is it that movies never get as angry as this one, even at a time when social disparities are ripe for criticism?
(On Cable TV, March 2018) Not all Oscar-winning movies are created equal, and it’s mind-boggling that a dull movie such as How Green Was My Valley would beat out Citizen Kane as the best picture of 1941. Not that this is entirely surprising: Director John Ford’s film is the kind of maudlin chronicle of a small town that Hollywood finds it easy to love. Unchallenging, promoting easy virtues and executed with maximum pathos thanks to a few well-chosen deaths and overall atmosphere of nostalgic longing, topped with an entirely respectable sad ending. The title tells you almost everything you need to know. How you’ll react is up to you—I found myself intermittently entertained by some of the episodes, but generally bored by the entire thing. The black-and-white cinematography, though excellent, does How Green Was My Valley no favour—it’s one of those rare cases where a colour film would have been more appropriate (and not solely for Maureen O’Hara’s red hair). Everyone’s mileage will vary. I’d rather watch Citizen Kane another time.
(On Cable TV, December 2017) My understanding of James Stewart and John Wayne’s screen persona is still incomplete (especially when it comes to Stewart’s latter-day westerns), but as of now, “James Stewart and John Wayne in a Western” tells me nearly all I needed to know about The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’s plot. The clash between Stewart’s urbane gentility and Wayne’s tough-guy gruffness isn’t just casting: it’s the crux of the film’s nuanced look at the end of the Western period. The film’s classic set-up (an eastern-trained lawyer comes to town, becomes an enemy of the local villain) becomes an examination of Western tropes when the easy fatal solution is rejected by the protagonist as being against his values. When John Ford’s character steps in as a necessary conduit for violence, this deceptively simple film becomes a thought-piece questioning an entire genre. I surprisingly liked it upon watching (save for an extended sequences in which American democracy is slowly explained) and liked it even more upon further thought. Stewart is terrific in a role that harkens back to his more youthful idealist persona, while Ford is impeccable as a somewhat repellent but ultimately heroic figure. (I find it significant that my three favourite Wayne movies so far, along with The Searchers and The Shootist, have him willing to play roles that are critical of his usual persona.) Under John Ford’s experienced direction, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance acts as an epilogue to the Western and a hopeful examination of American values that emerged from the period.
(In French, On Cable TV, November 2017) As I dig farther away in the vault of classic movies I have never seen, there’s an entire section dedicated to westerns … a genre that has never interested me all that much. With The Searchers, another issue is that the film revolves around John Wayne, not an actor that I’ve liked a lot so far and who literally comes across as a creepy uncle in the opening moments of the film. Add to that a first act that makes Native Americans look awful and I was definitely struggling to make it through the film’s opening half-hour. What helped power through this bad start is some spectacular scenery, and seeing the comfort of a straight-ahead western gradually give way to a far more morally ambiguous plot. What, in a lesser movie, would have been a few days’ worth of adventures becomes a kick in the gut as the story stretches upon years, becoming a quixotic quest featuring a damaged hero. (I do like the theory that the girl is his daughter.) It leads to a dramatic riverbed confrontation that becomes the highlight of the film, and to an off-putting climactic sequence that doesn’t entirely condone what’s happening. The ending would have been coded as happy at the beginning of the quest, but comes across as bittersweet-at-best by the end of the film. Better yet, Wayne does play a rather bad guy here. I’m not sure that director John Ford had, in 1956, the tools or social latitude to make the film he wanted to make about revisiting common attitudes toward western tropes. The Searchers does make the best out of what it could say, however, and the result eventually won me over.